FDA broadens access to abortion pills

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Thursday expanded access to the abortion pill mifepristone, allowing patients to obtain it by mail instead of requiring in-person visits with specific health care providers.

The FDA said its decision to permanently remove the “in-person dispensing requirement” would “reduce burden on patient access and the health care delivery system.” 

Through this action, patients can receive a prescription for mifepristone after a telemedicine appointment and have the pills sent directly to them.

Mifepristone is the first of a two-drug medication used to terminate a pregnancy up to 10 weeks. Patients previously could obtain the second drug misoprostol, which is supposed to be taken up to 48 hours later, with a standard pharmacy prescription.

Earlier this year, the agency declined to enforce the in-person mandate for the duration of the pandemic after several medical groups warned it put patients at unnecessary greater risk of contracting COVID-19. 

The FDA’s move comes as the Supreme Court is considering whether to limit abortion rights in a case involving Mississippi’s 15-week ban that poses a direct challenge to the 1973 precedent of Roe v. Wade.  

The high court also allowed a controversial Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks to remain intact and official sent it to an appeals court on Thursday.

Medication abortion has grown in popularity since its authorization in 2000. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data found a majority of abortions before 10 weeks and 42 percent of all abortions across 47 states in 2019 were completed using pills. 

Abortion rights advocates, including Planned Parenthood Federation of America President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson celebrated the decision as a “victory for public health and health equity.” 

“Abortion is time-sensitive, essential health care, and this decision will remove a sometimes insurmountable barrier for patients seeking an abortion,” she said in a a statement. “With abortion rights at risk like never before, the FDA’s decision is a long overdue step toward expanding people’s access to safe medication abortion.”

But anti-abortion groups blasted the FDA’s decision as “reckless,” with Susan B. Anthony List State Policy Director Sue Liebel saying it “puts countless women and unborn children in danger.”

The FDA decision, however, doesn’t override regulations in nineteen states that currently require doctors prescribing abortion pills to be physically present at the time of their administration, preventing patients from getting them during telemedicine appointments, according to the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute.

Amid a push for abortion restriction legislation this year, at least eight states enacted laws restricting telemedicine appointments to get abortion pills. Four approved legislation setting a limit of less than 10 weeks to take abortion pills.

By mid-year, state legislatures had already passed more abortion restriction laws in almost five decades, after the Supreme Court solidified its 6-3 conservative majority following Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. 

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she was “relieved” by the decision calling the previous in-person requirement “unacceptable” and “unnecessary” in a statement. But she argued Congress still needs the Women’s Health Protection Act to protect abortion rights federally.

“We can’t lose sight that despite the FDA’s decision, state laws—including in Texas—still ban access to medication abortion through telehealth or by mail, and will prevent patients from getting the health care they need,” she said.

Updated at 5:59 p.m.

Tags abortion pill abortions Amy Coney Barrett FDA Food and Drug Administration Mifepristone Patty Murray
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